Eighty years gives chance to reflect on great fortune


In February, I will be 80. Only because of decent health and a continuing supply of entertaining friends, I do not consider this a catastrophe.

When I graduated from college at 21, I did not expect to live until the next century. Doing so would mean being a doddering 62. It did not occur to me in 1959 that neither of my grandfathers was yet 70 or that both were active and lucid. 

I knew two of my great-grandparents. In the 1940s, having great-grandparents able to fog a mirror was a rare thing. Today, I have numerous friends with multiple great-grandchildren.

Though I no longer work in the formal sense, it pleases me to join friends for an after-work beverage. It eases the burdens of Mississippi humidity and local politics.

Do I stay busy? Yes. I spend a lot of time trying to recall things that I’ve forgotten, and I spend considerable time trying to forget some things that I remember. No one’s perfect.

I make lists of things I want to do and of things I have no intention of ever doing. I hope to add seven countries to the 93 I’ve visited. I intend to formally thank friends and colleagues who made a positive impact on my walk through life’s pop-up shooting range.

The not-going-to-do list includes hair transplants, tattoos, watching NFL football games, and drinking buttermilk.

My humility index is lower than average, but I have long admitted that my share of good luck is larger than I earned or deserved. It traces largely to being in the right place at the right time and willing to take a chance.

When you are 80, given good fortune, you can look back on some remarkable things that you got to do. Note that “got to do” is different from “accomplished.”

Here are a few of the “got to do” things:

Hear live radio broadcasts about Pearl Harbor. See Joe DiMaggio hit a home run in Yankee Stadium (in an Old Timers game, but what the hell). Meet Muhammad Ali. Dine with Peter Ustinov. Have beers with Reggie Jackson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and A.J. Foyt. Swap off-color jokes with Paul Newman. Have drinks with David Niven.

And more: Spend a week as Henry Fonda’s driver. Become a senior vice president at two major ad agencies. Shoot commercials or short films with Tim Conway, Cliff Robertson, Sir Jackie Stewart, Hoyt Axton, and Telly Savalas. Write for Sports Illustrated.


And still more: Run both the editorial and business sides of the planet’s largest automotive publication (Car and Driver). Drive a 37-foot motor home in the Cannonball - from Manhattan to California in just over 45 hours. Tend bar. Work as a diesel mechanic. Date a Rockette. Pilot an unlimited hydroplane.

And more yet: Appear frequently on “CBS This Morning” as its automotive commentator and less often on “The Today Show” and “The Charlie Rose Show.” Drive to the North Slope of Alaska in the dead of winter. Golf at Pebble Beach, after a fashion.

Go to an excellent high school (Jackson Central), a fine college (Millsaps), and the Navy’s officer candidate school. Become senior watch officer on an aircraft carrier. My ship, the USS Intrepid, is now a museum, and I confess to ambivalence about that.

My wife, Susan, and I have traveled to the seven continents. For 11 years we had an apartment in Paris. We took the Orient Express from Venice to London. Years later, accompanied by an advertising executive, his girlfriend, and a woman helicopter pilot, I raced the Express from Venice to Paris in a Bentley. The train was slow. We stopped for dinner in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, and still won.

I reached my biblical allotment of three score years and ten a decade ago, but I am in good health save for neuropathy in both feet and a growing inability to remember grocery lists. My wife of 34 years puts up with me and even laughs with me. I have friends whom I enjoy.

As I penetrate deeper into the jungle of my dotage, I can still hear, sort of. I have all my teeth, each one capped. I wear glasses but am not blind without them. I can drive, though not at 105 mph at night in a motor home. I can put on my trousers without holding on to a chair. If I’m careful.

I am thankful for each day; I am doubly thankful for days when I laugh out loud. And that’s most of them.

William Jeanes is a Northsider.

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